U.S.-Jewish Donors Help Fuel Jerusalem Tensions With Settler Push

Critics claim NGO Ateret Cohanim's actions have played a role in the Palestinians' fears about Israeli encroachment on the Temple Mount, stoking the current violence.

The Forward
Nathan Guttman
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The Abu Nab building in Silwan, East Jerusalem.
The Abu Nab building in Silwan, East Jerusalem. Credit: Emil Salman
The Forward
Nathan Guttman

The timing was hardly ideal when the Israeli police evicted five Palestinian families from their homes in the East Jerusalem Arab neighborhood of Silwan, near the Old City.

The October 19 takeover, coming amid a wave of Palestinian attacks on Israeli Jews, only further enraged many Palestinians, who believe that the government is seeking to challenge longtime Muslim control of the Old City’s nearby Temple Mount area, sacred to three faiths.

It’s a charge that the government has been denying — to little effect so far on the violence. But in this case, as in many other such evictions that have taken place under the shadow of the historic Al Aqsa Mosque that stands atop the holy mount, it was not the government alone that stood behind the actions that reinforced these fears.

The non-governmental organization Ateret Cohanim — in English, “Crown of the Priests” — took control of the property after the government seized it. And behind that group, in turn, stands scores of American Jewish donors who have for years supported it and other like-minded organizations with tens of millions of dollars in tax-deductible U.S. support.

It is the declared goal of these groups to acquire the rights to properties in Arab East Jerusalem and the Arab quarters of the Old City around the sensitive Temple Mount area. They then buy out or, if necessary, evict the properties’ Arab tenants. Quickly, they then move in Orthodox Jewish religious nationalists in a bid to assert Jewish control over these Arab sectors.

It’s a mission the groups defend as support for the rightful return of Jews to areas in which they lived before they were themselves chased out by Arab violence in the years of conflict that preceded the Israel’s establishment as a Jewish state in 1948.

Matti Dan, the head of Ateret Cohanim and leader of the Jewish community in the Muslim Quarter.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

But critics and opponents say their actions have played a role in the Palestinians’ fears about Israeli encroachment on the Temple Mount, stoking the current violence.

“It has a qualitative influence on the nature of the conflict,” said Daniel Seidemann, an expert on Jerusalem who has worked to curb attempts by Ateret Cohanim and other Orthodox groups to expand into Arab neighborhoods. Their actions, he said, turn the clash between Arabs and Jews “from a resolvable political conflict into a religious conflict that cannot be resolved.”

Funds for these purchases, at least in part, come from the American Jewish community. In 2013, U.S. donations to the group Ateret Cohanim amounted to $586,000, a relatively small sum in comparison to other Israeli causes supported by American Jews, but one that makes up a significant portion of the organization’s budget. The group uses its budget to purchase and settle homes, like those belonging to the Abu Nab family, which was evicted October 19.

Since tax filing rules do not require detailing the overseas programs being funded by American donors, hard numbers on their current day role overall are not available. But based on documents of the known players on the scene, it is safe to estimate that American Jews provide between $5-10 million a year to finance the settling of Jews in Palestinian areas of Jerusalem.

Still, in recent years the balance in the partnership between American charity donors and the government of Israel in supporting such groups has dramatically shifted. According to Seidemann, it is the Israeli government’s support for them, not American dollars, that now enables this project.

“The most important contribution is that of the government,” he said. “The government provides not only resources but also the authority to do this.”

In 1992, a study by Israel’s Ministry of Justice, known as the Klugman report, found that the government confiscated some of the Palestinian properties on the basis of unsupported affidavits submitted by the groups about the properties’ absentee-owner status. The government then transferred rights to the properties to the groups exclusively at highly preferred prices.

Today, Ateret Cohanim continues to pursue the acquisition of properties that it believes once belonged to Jews. With a budget of $2.5 million in 2012, according the latest available public record, the group works to purchase and resettle homes in the Muslim quarter, the Mount of Olives and the Arab neighborhood of Silwan. It is supported by American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, a New York based charitable group run by Susan Hikind, the spouse of New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind.

The American group has seen a significant drop in its fundraising in recent years, going from $1.1 million in 2012 to just under $700,000 in 2013. The American group’s stated goal mentions “promoting the study and observance of Jewish religious tradition and culture” as well as providing “funds for needy families for housing renovations and repairs.” But the mission statement of Ateret Cohanim, the Israeli beneficiary, makes clear in no uncertain terms how it intends to spend its funds. “Purchase and redemption of property in Jerusalem; property management in Jerusalem and specifically in the Old City; providing security for Jewish residents of the Old City.”

Hikind did not respond to the Forward’s request for an interview.

While Ateret Cohanim is still a major player, the Israeli non-profit Elad, supported by the American organization Friends of Ir David, or the City of David, has received more attention in recent years. Elad received $3.5 million in 2013 from its American benefactors and spent just over $4 million on purchasing and renovating homes in East Jerusalem. Like Ateret Cohanim,

Elad is also active in purchasing homes in Silwan, some of which belonged to Jews before Israel gained its independence. An estimated 500 Jews already reside in this Arab neighborhood, thanks to the effort of this group and others.

Elad also receives funds from fees it charges tourists visiting the Ir David archeological garden, a large tract near the Old City that the government took control of and then turned over to Elad to excavate and then operate. The site, which draws thousands of visitors each year, is believed to be the area where King David of the Bible had his palace and capital.

Moshe Billet, executive director of American group Friends of Ir David, declined to respond to the Forward’s question regarding the use of the funds his organization raises.

A Jewish settler in Jerusalem's Muslim Quarter. Credit: Emil Salman

For years, the main funder of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem was Dr. Irving Moskowitz, a Florida philanthropist deeply involved in right-wing Israeli politics. According to press reports, Moskowitz invested $20 million in Jerusalem settlement projects in the decades after Israel took control of East Jerusalem in June 1967 Six Day War. This included purchasing the historic Shepherd Hotel in Sheikh Jarrah for building a Jewish neighborhood, and buying houses in the Muslim and Christian quarters of Jerusalem for Jewish settlement.

The Moskowitz Foundation, run by Cherna Moskowitz ever since her husband was taken ill, still provides significant donations to causes in East Jerusalem, though on a much smaller scale. In 2013, the foundation listed among its grantees several organizations focused on settling Jews in East Jerusalem and developing Jewish sites in the Arab sectors of the city. These included the Everest Foundation, which has for years served as Moskowitz’s clearinghouse for investments in Jerusalem and in the West Bank; the Central Fund for Israel, another vehicle often used by American Jews to support settlements, and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation which was the key developer of the Western Wall tunnels. The construction of the tunnels by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation ignited an outburst of Palestinian violence when opened in the fall of 1996.

Most of these Orthodox nationalist groups believe that strengthening Jewish presence in areas surrounding Jerusalem’s Holy Basin area will both revive Israel’s historic claims for areas that used to be home for Jews in biblical times, and ensure that Jerusalem remains under Israeli rule. But the international community views East Jerusalem, which Israel seized in the 1967, as occupied territory whose final status must be settled by negotiations, not annexation.

For all that, the project is still relatively small. The number of Jewish residents settled in the midst of Palestinian Jerusalem neighborhoods is estimated at 2,600 despite decades of effort. But increasing Jewish presence in these areas is also a relatively low-budget operation, requiring only limited funding.

“American Jews often feel like we don’t have a role in or responsibility for changing the facts on the ground, but when tens of millions of American dollars go to settlements, it does change the facts on the ground,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah, a rabbinical human rights organization.

Jacobs noted that many Jewish Americans support the two-state solution for Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, but are not aware of the issue of these projects, which the world views as settlements, in East Jerusalem. “Most of American Jews think about the kotel and Temple Mount, but not necessarily about Silwan, Issawiya or Sheikh Jarrah,” she said, listing some of the Arab neighborhoods surrounding Jerusalem in which Jewish groups have sought to settle.

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